Patients don’t always have to let us into their rooms. This week I had one of those moments where I had to take a step back and appreciate some of the unique life experiences that patients have allowed me to share with them. As medical students, I think we don’t give enough acknowledgement or praise to the vulnerable individuals that allow flocks of medical students to bumble around their bedside. But our perceived ineptness is the last thing on the patient’s mind; a friendly face that is willing to listen to their story is just as important. Let’s not stress that we may not know the answer to every one of their questions, rather let’s make sure we do our best that they get the care they deserve.
When I entered the room of a pregnant woman in her second trimester with vaginal bleeding and an incompetent cervix, I had no idea what to expect. I was on my third day of my OB/GYN rotation and just a few hours earlier I had gotten to witness the beginning of life in a room across the hall. After reporting to my attending and a few imaging tests later it became clear that this patient’s baby was not going to survive. Even worse were the overwhelming emotions that cut through the room when we informed the patient that, due to complications, she would have to deliver her baby now.
After minutes that seemed like hours, there I stood. Crammed in a small room full of nurses, doctors and other students I watched as a single mother cradled her tiny, underdeveloped and dying child. It is an image that will forever remain in my memory.
Powerful experiences like these should not be taken for granted. I can’t even begin to imagine the fear, distress and pain that this woman was going through — and yet she allowed a budding doctor to be involved and to learn from it. Patients like this admirable woman are gracing us with an opportunity to understand firsthand about diseases and pathologies we’ve only ever read about. Their willingness to let us learn extends beyond allowing us to partake in personal moments — they also let us next to their bedsides at the most inopportune times. A patient may have just seen the hospitalist and consulting specialist, the nurse just took vitals, and the phlebotomist finished drawing blood. Needless to say, right as I’m about to percuss the abdomen the dietary aide walks in with the patient’s long awaited lunch. Over 90 percent of the time the response I get is something along the lines of, “Don’t worry, I’ll get it when you’re finished.” I think situations like this speak volumes to how patients perceive us. They treat us with respect and dignity; in their eyes we are a part of the medical team even though we ourselves feel sub-par in comparison to residents and doctors that are teaching us. Let’s give them the same recognition.
This is why, as often as possible, I like to take advantage of being a third-year medical student. We aren’t necessarily bound by time constraints and have the opportunity to spend a few extra minutes with a patient. Getting to know a patient’s interests, hobbies, friends and family goes a long way in trying to make someone feel a bit more comfortable in their new (and scary) hospital setting. Stop by a patient’s room before your lunch break. Give a quick wave to that person you saw at the ER that morning. Smile at the psych patient you interviewed a few days earlier. Too often, unfortunately, many of the patients I’ve encountered either have family that have passed away or aren’t able to make it into the hospital. The extra five minutes we spend with them might give them a chance to unload their worries and maybe even help them forget they’re in the hospital, isolated from their loved ones. It’s the little things like this that make the difference — treating the patient like an actual person rather than a textbook case is not only good medicine, but shows your appreciation.
So I urge everyone to take a step back and think about some of the personal situations patients have allowed you to take part in. I think too often as students we can get caught up in a sea of jaded health care workers, OSCE’s and question banks — taking for granted how much a “real-life” patient can help us learn. They teach us so much; let’s do all we can for them. Someday we may be the people changing their lives, but right now they are the ones shaping ours.